Fracking companies will be able to drill horizontally under national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the UK if the wells start just outside them, MPs agreed last night just two weeks after backing an outright ban in those areas.
The government had previously promised not to allow fracking in protected areas, in a concession to the Labour Party which called for tighter controls to be written into laws on 26 January, but the final amendments passed by MPs on Monday unpicked many of them.
As fracking regulations in the Infrastructure Bill cleared Parliament, Amber Rudd, the energy minister, told MPs it would not be practical to guarantee that no shale gas extraction will take place underneath those areas “without unduly constraining the industry”.
Rudd previously announced that the Government was “effectively removing” the condition which would allow fracking in national parks, sites of special interest and areas of national beauty (AONB) in “exceptional circumstances”.
According to a recent analysis by The Guardian newspaper that would have made two-fifths of the land in England exempt from hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. Fracking typically involves drilling down more than a mile and then horizontally to release the gas trapped in layers of shale by pumping water, chemicals and sand at high pressure underground.
Tom Greatrex, the shadow energy minister, said that protected areas “could find themselves potentially ringed by shale gas operators”. He added that Ms Rudd would regret damaging the Labour proposals previously passed by MPs in the Commons.
Nick Clack, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “The Government claimed last week to have introduced strong legal safeguards on fracking to protect the countryside and communities. Yesterday ministers undermined that claim and further eroded public confidence.”
The Government accepted the Lords amendments to Labour's safeguarding proposals by 257 votes to 203, majority 54.
The Bill, which includes other infrastructure measures such as road strategy and planning reforms, has now cleared all stages of Parliament and will receive Royal Assent before becoming law.